Zwartboek

Nice trailer (WMV) for Paul Verhoeven’s new movie, Zwartboek.

Edit: and I am not just saying that because, as someone put it, “Carice van Houten has the nicest ass in a trailer ever”. Though that helps.

Copyright law and the copyright law: the case Vermande vs. Bojkovski

In some respects Dutch copyright law is not as advanced as its American counterpart. For instance, in the US publications of the federal government are in the public domain. This is for example why people get to know so much about space: anyone can republish images that were originally published by NASA.

In the Netherlands, political parties have gotten no further than discussing whether perhaps public television broadcasts should be “freed”.

Dutch copyright law (English version in PDF after link) does make an exception though for “laws, decrees or ordinances issued by public authorities, or [for] judicial or administrative decisions”.

When Richard Stallman speaks of copyright law, he refers to it as an industry regulation. Copyright, he claims, is a balance between two public interests, and it was won so easily, because ordinary citizens did not have to give up anything; ordinary citizens typically did not own printing presses in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. By giving up the right to copy, they essentially gave up nothing. Copyright regulated practices in the publishing industry.

When people finally do find a use for an under-used right, they are going to want to use it. And as soon as they do, those on the other end of the bargain are going to cry foul. The last decade copyright law has expanded in the US and the EU in an almost obscene manner, demonstrating that it is the people that drew the short end.

An interesting demonstration of an under-utilized right, where a gate-keeper lashes out at anyone who wishes to utilize the right, is the case of Vermande vs. Bojkovski. In the 1990s, Pavle Bojkovski, a law student from Amsterdam, started a website called Wetten.nu, which published law texts. The site ceased to exist in 2001, three years after the decision in Vermande vs. Bojkovski, but can still be consulted in the Wayback Machine.

Thus far, the publication of laws, though officially not restricted by copyrights, had been a monopoly of the former state printer, SDU. That is, Dutch law only becomes valid after publication in a newspaper called Staatsblad (lit. paper of the state), which is published by a private company called SDU B.V. (B.V. = incorporated). There were (and are) other publishers of legal texts, such as Wolters Kluwer—I do not know whether they licensed their versions from SDU.

Anyway, citizens who wanted access to the text of the law had to go through a process that generated money for publishers. For instance, you went out and bought the Staatsblad, or you went to the public library and looked up some of Wolters Kluwer’s tomes. Somebody, somewhere had to be paid to deliver this information to you.

This wasn’t necessarily a bad system at the time. The people had no easy way of accessing documents anyway, other than buying printed copies or looking them up in the library. The internet, and especially the web, changed this of course.

Bojkovski made it possible to bypass the network of gatekeepers. You could go to his website, and all you needed to pay for was the transfer of bits. There was no premium to the content itself, for which you had already paid in the form of taxes.

Undoubtedly, it was this circumvention that raised the ire of SDU. Through one of its subsidiaries, Vermande, it sued Bojkovski. It claimed that Bojkovski had infringed copyrights, database right, and that he had acted against the Terms and Conditions under which Bojkovski had acquired the law texts from SDU.

In other words, this was going to be a walk-over for Bojkovski, because the law states that the text of the law is not copyrighted.

In reality, it was a close shave. That Bojkovski had copied the text from Vermande’s commentaries to the law, instead of from the Staatsblad, should have been immaterial. Nor should it have been important that SDU made a substantial investment collecting law texts and making them accessible.

Unfortunately, the European Union passed a directive that grants so-called database rights that do just that: make it illegal to republish information that was collected in a database.

The judge in Vermande vs. Bojkovski intimated that he was inclined to find for Vermande (+ English abstract), except that the Dutch government had at the time not yet been able to decide how to turn the E.U. directive into national law. The judge was not going to second-guess the government, and so he decided the case solely on the copyright issues. Bojkovski won.

Commentaries at the time not only sided with the judge’s narrow interpretation of database law, but also predicted that it was impossible for the government to draft a database law that would excluded state publications.

The Dutch government has done just that, though; according to Bernt Hugenholtz (linked before):

The case eventually led to the adoption in the Database Act of a provision (Article 8(1) ) that rules out government ownership of database rights in respect of laws, decrees, ordinances, as well as court and administrative decisions. The provision is supposedly based on the catch-all provision of Article 13 of the Directive, that leaves ‘laws on […] access to public documents’ intact.

Restricting a citizen’s access to the texts of the laws by which he is governed sounds like the stuff that science-fiction stories are made of, but without an enterprising law-student who was willing to take a stand, that might very well have become practice in the Netherlands.

BBC tries to blame Tim Berners-Lee for everything

International terrorism? Blame Tim Berners-Lee! Children being exposed to hard porn? Blame Tim Berners-Lee! Nigerian scams? Blame Tim Berners-Lee!

The gist of the interview that the BBC held with Tim Berners-Lee seems to be that he should feel guilty for everything that the web is being abused for. Time and again the so-called reporter comes back with questions like “I have to accept that someone in Mexico may have stolen my identity and now be using it; is [that] worth [it]?” and “do you feel responsible for what happens?” and “do you ever have bad moments about [the web being given over to] sexual exhibitionists masturbating in their bedrooms with webcams?” and “you’ve never had a sleepless night over that?”.

From what I am given to understand, that was just the tip of the iceberg, and the real interview tried to blame TBL for international terrorism too. Because, as we all know, the web is the weapon of choice for the international terrorist.

Bah!

Did Google “steal” the moon?

Copyright maximalists use silly terminology like “copyright protects the content of intellectual property owners against theft by pirates“. Works are works, not content, and cannot be stolen, because they can effortly and almost freely be duplicated. They are not owned by copyright owners, but by the public, which loans the works to the publishers (most of the time). A work is not protected by copyright, since copyright generally makes sure that only a limited amount of dissemination can be applied to a work, whereas full protection also requires the unhindered ability to rip, mix, and burn a work.

Anyway, this issue is well-understood, and the only really disconcerting thing about it is that regular folks, and even copyfighters, unthinkingly use the same words when talking about copyright that the sort of scum that tries to criminalize regular folks use.

I said that works cannot be stolen, but that is not quite true. Theft means that I take something away so that you can no longer use it. Copyright law would be theft if it weren’t introduced by the state, because copyright law makes it so that you can no longer freely use works. If anything copyright related comes close to being theft, it is making false claims about copyright status. Visible copyright claims have become No Tresspassing signs, barring people from access even where they have a right to access.

Google made a small celebratory parody on their excellent Google Maps service; Google Moon celebrates the first manned moon-landing by providing a photo map of the Sea of Tranquility.

[Screenshot of a fragment of the Google Moon interface]

The interesting bit is the copyright notice that Google super-imposes on the image: “Copyright 2005 Google – Imagery copyright 2005 NASA”. NASA is a part of the USA government, and according to the copyright laws of that same government, governmentally produced works are in the public domain. In other words, nothing is “copyright NASA”–the photos Google uses are owned by the entire planet; not just by NASA and not just by Google.

Also interesting is how Google super-imposes the copyright notice over the image text, implying that Google is also a copyright holder of these photos. The thing Google probably claims copyright over are the page lay-out, the software, possibly the interface (if that can be copyrighted). And probably Google was not being evil (although they have not been trying very hard to not be evil lately), but rather it was listening to its lawyers who said “better safe than sorry”.

When I started this blog, I had a couple of goals with it. One of them was to let me explore the intricacies of copyright by writing about them. I feel that I have not learned much yet, but one thing I am pretty certain about; misrepresenting copyright status is almost always a bad thing. When people want to build upon a work, but are turned off by the possibility of infringement that is suggested by a falsely placed copyright notice, or by a badly written license, or by the lack of mention of an author to contact, it means creativity is blocked by copyright.

I stumble upon this from time to time when trying to find books for Project Gutenberg. Since I am in the Netherlands, I need to make sure that a book is in the public domain before I send it to PG. In my case that means finding out the date the author died, but with obscure authors that is rarely straightforward.

Why I voted No

For some reason, a lot of the foreign press and a lot of the Dutch politicians had their answer ready as to why the majority of the Dutch voters voted against the treaty for the constitution of the E.U., although hardly* any of them had actually bothered to ask those same voters.

That does not bode well for the future of the E.U.

If our politicians want to shape the E.U. in such a way that it becomes a people’s union, and if the press wants to play a role in that, a smidgeon of honesty might be desirable.

I had many reasons for voting against this treaty. For one thing, it wasn’t good enough. Too little change for the better, and concessions on points that do not really matter anyway. I was (and am) afraid that if we had said Yes, this would have been it for the next ten, twenty, fifty years.

For another, I don’t like being told we can order any car we want, as long as its black. Ford can tell me that, because I can take my money and go to another car manufacturer. Not so with politics. If I need to make a choice, it must be a real choice. The Dutch government has been painting the No vote as one of anarchy, of chaos, of terrorism, of idiocy. If they really, truly believe that, then why ask us for our opinions?

Third, this “constitution” did not deserve that name. A constitution is a list of the very basic premises upon which a people form a political union. Ignoring for a minute the question of whether the E.U. should be more than a market: a book of 450 pages is not a small list. The “constitition” of the E.U. was a wish-list such as a child might present Santa. “Who likes strawberry ice-cream,” the E.U. asked of its citizens, expecting to hear only mindless “me”s.

And finally, yes I did want to punish certain politicians. This Europe is squarely opposed to software patents, yet for some reason the council of ministers pushed their will through, often against the explicit wishes of their local parliaments.

I looked up the treaty to see if anything would change in the procedure for voting in E.U. directives, and in particular in the role of the Council of Ministers. Hardly anything would have changed.

In short: we can do better than this.

*) A positive exception being BBC Online, with excellent coverage. For one thing, they asked real voters about why they voted what.

Song of experience

Odd, how you sometimes have to add “gutenberg” or “wikipedia” to your search string to find the real deal. One would expect Google to cough those up first.

Especially Wikipedia articles are an enigma: Google will often link to sites that use Wikipedia content, with the original article nowhere to be found.

I was looking for this:

NURSE’S SONG
When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
(From: William Blake’s Songs of Experience)

(cp: Yma Sumac, Mambo!)

New monopoly right in The Netherlands

The dumbest government we have seen for ages has managed to pull another rabbit from the hat. Book prices are now officially regulated, meaning that you are not allowed to sell them cheaply. The booksellers have even set up a site giving information (with which they mean: propaganda) to explain the motives behind the new law. The main motive appears to be to ensure a rich choice of books; without minimum prices (which until now booksellers illegally agreed to amongst themselves), bookstores would only offer the best-sellers.

I find that dubious reasoning at best. And somehow I doubt bookstores formed an illegal cartel until now just so that they could look after our cultural landscape.

Is this how Europe works?

European Union: internal market. For an internal market, trade-related laws need to be harmonized. Council of ministers agrees to proposals (called directives) by the civil service of the E.U., the European Commission, which member states then fold into their national laws. The E.U. and its directives exist by the grace of the member states; if the council of ministers would pass directives willy-nilly, the member states would refuse to pass new laws based on those directives.

Is this how Europe works?

The past year and a half I have been following (and at times participated in) the process of changing copyright and patent laws in the E.U.

The council of ministers would like to allow patents on computer programs. This would be a harmonization, because some countries allow patents on computer programs, and others do not. Of course, the council of ministers could have moved the other direction and explicitely outlawed patents on “pure software”; that also would be harmonization. It did not, and one can only guess to the reason why. If I were still a journalist, I would “follow the money”.

In the Netherlands, one of the E.U.’s member states, parliament tried to make work easy for themselves by agreeing to the position of the European Parliament, whatever that might be. The responsible minister in turned tried to make it easier for parliament, by declaring that the EP agreed with the EC, which was an outright lie. The EP was and is against patents on computer programs.

After the minister had voted for software patents in the council of ministers, parliament was alerted that the minister had lied to them. In a volatile coalition, this might be enough for the fall of the government, but that’s not the case now. If elections were held in the Netherlands today, the ruling parties would all lose seats.

Dutch parliament accepted a motion though that said the minister had to change his yes-vote into an abstention. The minister interpreted that as doing nothing, because he had already voted. Apparently, he had all run out of vote on this issue.

For some reason, though, the proposal of the E.C. had to be run by the council of ministers again, this time as a formality. That means that a lot of issues are placed on the agenda, and when the meeting is over and no-one has specifically objected (I presume), the issues are passed.

The opposition in Dutch parliament tried to get a motion passed that the minister had to actually request the issue be taken off the agenda, which means it could not be treated as a formality. The nays had it, because it was an individual vote count, and not enough of the yes-voters showed up.

Yesterday, the same vote was held, and the ayes had it. For now, the vote is stalled so that the EP can restart the entire process again.

What have I learned so far?

  • You cannot trust a politician (I already knew this, but it never hurts to repeat this fundamental truth)
  • The E.U. is broken:
    • it is run by ministers instead of countries; the ministers do not always represent the countries (and seem to be quite candid about it too)
    • its power extends beyond the internal market, affecting lives the way it should not

But also:

  • Lobbying helps.

This proposal would have passed over a year ago if it had not been for the tremendous efforts by the FFII and Vrijschrift.

I believe that the damage to the E.U. would have been horrific. Already, the damage is huge; by stalling the banning of pure software patents, the E.U. has kept itself from becoming a safe haven for honest, talented, hard-working programmers from over the world.

Digital Durability

My part-time boss asked me to look into archival solutions. Quite soon I stumbled upon a Dutch government plan to make sure all its branches posses the knowledge of how to archive digital documents.

The people behind the plan have even set up a website, called Digitale Duurzaamheid (“Digital Durability”), which has all kinds of links to handy digital documents about durability.

Being in a bit of a hurry, I decided to click the link to “best practices”, and follow further links to digital documents about best practices of several departments. Unfortunately, those links all ended with 404s.

Untitled tragedy

Coltan is probably something you have never heard of, but it would change your daily life if it got taken away from you. It is a mineral used in many electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptops. Eighty percent of the world’s supply comes from Congo, although apparently you do not want to know how. If you do, Bill Hammack wrote a small column about it. (via the Project Gutenberg newsletter).